He didn’t want her to miss that last plane, and he didn’t want her to be here if he failed in a mission that had become everything to him. Desperation pounded through him. “I thought you said you weren’t a coward? Well, get on that plane and face your brother and his family.”
Her head snapped back toward him, her eyes blazing. “That was cruel and manipulative.”
“I’m just doing what has to be done to make sure you don’t end up dead.”
Pressing the bridge of her nose, she squeezed her eyes closed, her jaw trembling for a vulnerable minute, before she looked at him again. Pain and anger blended in her eyes, jelling into disillusionment. “You know, Hugh, maybe we’re both right here, in a sad way, not the good kind of way. Perhaps you and I are stuck in the past. You, so afraid of losing someone, it paralyzes you. And me, so afraid of being betrayed until I just can’t trust what I’m hearing.” She held up her hands. “So you win, Hugh. I’ll go. For what it’s worth, I think I could have really loved you too.”
She pivoted away, her head high as she marched toward the C-17. The setting sun bathed her tequila-colored hues, giving her a golden sheen. Relief damn near made him dizzy. His head and his heart were too wrecked to consider the consequences, but he had to believe he’d done the right thing even if it tore him apart inside.
“Dude?” a familiar voice called from just behind him, Jose “Cuervo” Jones. “You okay?”
Cuervo studied him with perceptive eyes, everyone’s buddy, always checking up on folks with their freaky weird sense of when people were about to crash. Wade “Brick” Rocha stood beside him, one of the Red Cross meal boxes in his hands and open. He shoveled down the protein bar in two bites. Must have been a long mission with no time to eat.
So was he okay? “Yeah”—no—“just tying up loose ends before I get back to work.” Was that all he had left for the rest of his life?
“Uh-huh.” Wade nodded, pulling out a sandwich. “Women don’t like it much when you issue them military orders.”
Jose leaned in. “Not that we were eavesdropping. You were mighty vocal there at the end.”
Hugh scrubbed a hand over his head. “So I’m just supposed to let her hang out here in an earthquake zone when there’s a perfectly good seat waiting for her?”
Raising his hands, Jose backed up. “I’m not the one to ask, dude. I’m still single.”
Hugh’s gaze skated back to Amelia, meeting up with her family. She had her brave face on, smiling even as Aiden and Lisabeth Bailey hovered over their kid with that new-parent awe he remembered well.
And yeah, Amelia was right in saying he was scared of the thought of committing again. Putting his heart in another child’s tiny hands? Damn. But what scared him most? Never having the chance to stand in a trio like that with Amelia—her, him, and their kid.
He pinched the bridge of his nose, kicking himself over his own thickheadedness. He clapped both of his buddies on the back. “I’ll catch you later at the hooch. I’ve got something to take care of first.”
Jogging toward the cargo plane, he kept his eyes locked on Amelia even as he wove around human traffic, litters being loaded, other refugees making their way up the load ramp. He even saw the nurse from the hospital—her name finally came to him: Lieutenant Gable—reaching for a baby in a woman’s outstretched arms.
He frowned, something niggling at the back of his mind. He looked closer, his feet carrying him across the packed earth. The woman a few feet away behind Amelia looked like any number of other relief workers in khakis and a cotton shirt, waist cinched with a gun belt. Like a dozen others here, she wore a hat to shade her face from the sun.
The wind rolled in from the ocean and picked up the brim of her hat enough for him to see—
Horror iced the blood in his veins as he recognized Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart standing only two feet away from Amelia.
Standing with her family, waiting to board, Amelia kept a smile plastered on her face even though she ached to scream out in frustration. For heaven’s sake, she made her living with words and persuasive arguments. How could she have let the conversation with Hugh go off the rails so abysmally? She knew full well why.
Because when he’d told her he loved her, she’d panicked. She’d picked a fight with him to avoid facing what the two of them shared back in the supply tent. To delay dealing with the love growing inside her so very fast.
She’d known they were heading in that direction, but she’d expected to have time to settle into the notion. Not to dive headfirst into the scary world of relationships again with a guy she’d barely known for a few days.
But oh my, what memorable days they had been.
Her eyes drifted back to where he’d been standing. Except he wasn’t there any longer. His broad shoulders were parting the crowd as he ran toward her. Her heart sped up. Her smile became real and heartfelt as she waved at him.
He waved back, shouting something that got lost in the roar of jet engines warming up and planes overhead. And he wasn’t smiling. In fact, he looked intensely serious. His arm shot out and he grabbed the arm of one of the security cops, hauling the man with him as Hugh continued to say something…
The wind rolling in off the ocean carried the hum of words. From the crowd? From Hugh. She could have sworn she heard the name…
Suddenly Hugh’s waving took on a whole different meaning and she looked behind her just as a gun jammed into her side. She stared straight into the fanatical eyes of Jocelyn Pearson-Stewart.
The woman shouted, “Everyone move back. Do not come near or I’ll shoot her. I swear it.”
Hugh and the security cop stopped in their tracks, the crowd fanning out in retreat. Amelia looked frantically around, making sure Joshua was nowhere near this monster. And thank God, Aiden had tucked his family behind him, already backing them away, his eyes apologizing to Amelia for not being able to help her.
She hoped he could see in her expression that she understood. He was doing what had to be done to guard his child. What should be done for any child, truly, which made her wonder why the military nurse holding that baby wasn’t moving away.
Hugh kept his hands high, in sight, unthreatening. “Jocelyn, you’re not going to get away. Let’s end this standoff now before someone gets hurt, like that baby over there. Can you really allow yourself to be responsible for even one more innocent life put at risk?”
The woman dug the gun deeper into Amelia’s side. “I am saving the children. Don’t you understand?”
And in the span of those few words, Amelia knew what she had to do. She’d heard that same tone in more criminal voices than she could count. Criminals with a zealous agenda. They all possessed a desperate compulsion to share their propaganda. If she could give Jocelyn that opportunity, she might just buy enough time for one of these guards to end this nightmare.
Amelia looked straight at Jocelyn without flinching and asked, “What do I need to understand? Tell me.”
Like a moth drawn to the flame, Jocelyn turned her attention to Amelia. “Without me, do you comprehend the lives they would have led?” Her skeletal fingers were surprisingly strong, banded around Amelia’s arm as she kept her close to her side. “Who knows how long they would have stayed in orphanages? I compacted that time for them. I was their guardian, their savior.”
As appalled as she was by the woman’s God complex, she had to keep her talking. “Do you realize how you’ve endangered them, circumventing the rules? You gave a platform to criminals like Oliver.”
“I took care of Oliver, just as I can take care of anyone who tries to pervert my mission.”
From the corner of her eye, Amelia tried to check her peripheral vision but so far hadn’t seen anyone move. Why the hell wouldn’t that nurse with the baby step away and give cops freer rein to move in? “You killed Oliver?”
“I shot him. He deserved to die. You people don’t understand what you have done in stopping me.” She swung the gun in a wide circle at the dozen or so people remaining. “Those children would be nothing without me.”
Amelia’s heart lurched as the wide arc swept past Hugh’s broad chest. His eyes met hers and held. She could see the steely determination glinting even from far away. She knew he would stop at nothing to be a crusader. What might he sacrifice now? Just the thought of how far he would go terrified her with images of his lifeless body sprawled on the ground.
Fear made her sway—and distracted her. She needed to pull Jocelyn’s focus back to her before she shot someone else. “It’s not about you and how fast you shuttle the most kids around. It’s about them and ensuring their safety. And believe me, speaking as someone who spent some time with Oliver and Tandi, safety was not uppermost in their minds.”
Something flickered in Jocelyn’s face, something like… guilt?
Amelia pressed. “Do you really believe that was the first time Oliver pulled something like that? He was going to sell me as some kind of sex slave. God only knows what he did to children you thought had simply gone missing or weren’t picked up.”
Jocelyn reeked with the scent of a cornered animal. Amelia knew her nose for fanatical criminals, her sense of how to work a defendant, had paid off. She’d hit Jocelyn where she was most vulnerable.
Time to push hard and finish it, to make Jocelyn deliver the damning words that would resonate with any jury. “The only way to save them now is for you to tell us what you did, so we can try to find them. Otherwise you’re every bit the criminal—the monster—Oliver was.”
An agonizing acceptance slid over Jocelyn’s face, and Amelia realized she’d won. The woman wouldn’t have to be taken out by some risky sniper shot. This could end peacefully. Amelia held out her hand, the one with the snakebite bandage. “Please, just give me your gun.”
The woman who’d single-handedly led an entire baby-smuggling ring sighed heavily, her face aging another ten years in the defeated moment. “You’re right. I did become like Oliver, dirty as hell, just like my good-for-nothing family.”
Jocelyn lifted the gun—and placed the barrel into her own mouth.
Eyes locked on Amelia, Hugh vaulted toward the C-17 load ramp. He heard his fellow PJs in step alongside him but he didn’t waste a second checking. He knew they would back him up as they sprinted toward the madwoman with a gun. Jocelyn might have it pointed at herself, but with Amelia still in her grip and snipers trying to get a clear shot…
He wasn’t stopping until he had Amelia far away from the line of fire.
His heart was in his throat, his pulse hammering harder as he stretched his body to the max. What if the bullet ricocheted, hitting bone? What if Jocelyn reflexively pulled away from the shot at the bitter end, common in suicide shooters. That last minute twitch could have sent a bullet into Amelia.
Into his woman.
Denial howled through him, and maybe even from his mouth. His teammates could take down Jocelyn. But Hugh had Amelia. He refused to be too late. He hadn’t been there to help Marissa, but damn it, he was here, now. He couldn’t fail her.
He dove toward Amelia, went airborne, and hooked an arm around her middle. A shot echoed. From where? Jocelyn’s gun. Blood spewed on her. On Amelia.
A bullet whizzed past his ear, coming from behind. He had to make sure she was clear of the snipers. He swept her off the ramp, twisting in midair so his body would catch the impact—
Oof. He slammed to the ground. The impact shattered through him, but for once he was grateful they only had a dirt runway rather than asphalt. He rolled her under him, shielding her as the ground shuddered beneath them.
“Amelia?” he shouted, needing to know. “Are you—?”